Thursday, July 31, 2008

Ah, Pizza

Having just been in Italy, our standards for good pizza are set to eleven. It’s a bit of a challenge to find high quality pizza in the south—the kind made in coal or wood fire ovens, which hit all the notes of a good thin crust, seasoned sauce, nice charring, and well-placed toppings. Last night we decided to try the new pizza place in Durham, Rockwood Filling station, and I had fairly high hopes. Even though the reviews warned us that it’s still suffering growing pains (open only a month), we figured it had to outstrip bloomin' onions at Outback. DH and I ordered the antipasti and calamari as starters and then chose to split the anchovy pizza for our entrée. DS ordered a plain cheese pie. Unfortunately, there were no options for DD (she dislikes pizza)—no pasta or fries or chicken nuggets, so she ordered their homemade ice cream. (I know . . . I’m a terrible mum. I should have packed the requisite sandwich, but I thought there would be more choices.)

Strangely, they brought out the pizzas first. And then two minutes later the appetizers arrived. So all our food was on the table at once. Arghh. Haven't they heard of pacing? Now we were compelled to eat quickly before either the pizza or calamari got cold. I eat fast anyway, so I don't need any extra incentives. Pissed me off!! What exactly is the definition of antipasti? Not only that, the antipasti isn't cooked, so what prevented them from bringing it before the rest of the food? At the other end of the spectrum, the calamari was over-cooked to a dark brown and proved tasteless (and such a small portion:)). The antipasti was ok—it was nice to have a deviled egg (though mine are superior—see Mad Men dinner). But there were way too many red peppers, and only two small pieces of prosciutto. It looked to me like a barely disguised cost-cutting dish. All in all, the pizzas were ok. The outer edge of the crust was satisfyingly chewy, but the middle was soggy. They went overboard a bit with the caramelized onions. In the end, I’d give their pizza a "6." Better than your average bear, but not worth a special trip. (DS rated his pizza a 1 or 2, but then he likes Papa John’s).

We lived in New Haven for a few years (where all the pizza places are called “Apizza” joints), so we really do know good pizza. Anyone familiar with New Haven is well aware that they lay claim to three of the best pizzerias in the country: Sally’s, Pepe’s, and Modern. And those in the know also argue over whose pizza is best. I’m a Sally’s gal, despite they’re being a pain (always a line, preferential treatment for some, no atmosphere, rude service, etc.). I always ordered a red pie with mozz, anchovies and mushrooms, and it was consistently divine. Sally’s taught me that putting anchovies on a pizza is an art—not too many, not too few, rinsed of excess brine, broken in pieces, and spaced with care. The clam pizza was tasty as well. Don’t get me wrong . . . Pepe’s was also terrific. "Modern" was our take-away place since it was close by. It was less consistent than the other two, but when Modern suceeded, it was sublime. I will never, ever forget a magical Modern white pizza (with ricotta and fresh tomatoes) we had one night. It was ambrosia-licious. (Hmm. Think that descriptor will catch on like “yum-o”?)

As everybody knows, there’s no sublime pizza in North Carolina. There’s ok pizza, such as Panzanella and Pops in Durham. And there’s our home-made pizza. In years past, I have had a few disasters with the pizza peel, so I’ve been cheating with pizza pans. But you know what? I can beat these local competitors. I’m ready to perfect my crust, and I’m ready to get out my peel and put that pie directly on the stone. It’s decided. We’re having pizza again tonight. Apizza, ncfoodie-style.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Wonderful Wednesdays

Since both DH and I are on academic schedules, we’re looser with our dinner plans in the summer. One addition is that we eat out with the kids every Wednesday: “wonderful Wednesdays” we’ve named them, since kids love ritual. So does DH. Sometimes we let the kids have a say in where we eat (which inevitably means Breadman’s, Elmo’s or a chain restaurant—but no fast food because I insist it be ‘sit down service’), but usually we are attempting to have a decent meal somewhere that makes the kids happy, too.

(As a long non-foodie digression, I should add that my soft ban on chains is even less stringent under the right circumstances. When employed at my first job, I used to hide out at the local Chili’s with DH, since I knew I’d see no one from work. It was my habit to have their chicken nachos as a meal –which they make individually, thus ensuring that each chip had a uniform amount of cheese, beans, chicken, and jalopeno—with a big glass of dry white wine. A questionable combination, I know, but it had a cheering effect on me. I think spending my adolescence in the most generic of suburbs allows me to derive a kind of strange comfort in a certain class of restaurant chain, as well as the occasional shopping mall. Unless I’m with extended family, I rarely find myself at Applebee’s, TGIFs, or Ruby Tuesday's, and you’ll never catch me at an Olive Garden (aka the spawn of Satan), but Chili’s and its like does offer a bland anonymity that relaxes me sometimes. While those places become depressing in larger doses, an occasional visit –if the food is palatable--can have an anesthetizing effect).

Anyway, back to Wonderful Wednesdays. One of the few places in Chapel Hill/Carrboro that works successfully for all members of my family is Panzanella, the Italian restaurant that Weaver Street Market in Carrboro runs. Great mussels, good salads, decent wines, and some of the best pizza in the area (which, I know, is not saying much—more on pizza in the next post). My ds, relatively picky, is happy with the pizza, and my dd, even pickier, can have plain noodles with butter and parmesan. If we pick a restaurant that fails to please dd (meaning, it lacks plain noodles with butter), we just pack a pb and j sandwich. That’s what we do when sushi’s on the schedule. I’m pleased that my ds has reached a place in his eating evolution where he can happily order Udon at Akai Hana with occasional tastings of sushi. His love of anime makes him open to all things Japanese. DD is still at the wrinkling-her-nose stage.

Last week we tried the fairly new Carrboro restaurant Southern Rail on “wonderful Wednesday,” and we were profoundly disappointed. Lovely setting in the old train cars, but a train wreck of a menu. Only dd was happy; she had the usual noodles with butter. I had my last-ever restaurant crab cake. I swear. That’s when I decided that I would never order crab cakes out again (unless in MD, as I previously stated). These crab cakes were horrifically inedible—so much so that I only ate half of one. Even worse was my son’s hamburger. Who can’t cook a hamburger to please a 10 year old boy? I don’t know who’s cooking there, but they’re not tasting the food. Or, if they are tasting the food, they simply don’t care. It was, to put it mildly, disgusting. Plus their descriptions of the wine offerings were doubtful. I’m not sure if they know what “dry” is.

So the question is: it’s Wednesday . . . where shall we eat tonight?

Uh oh. DS just sang, "Let's go Outback tonight."

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Coffee Talk

We were spoiled with good coffee in Italy. We don't own an espresso machine, nor do we plan to buy one anytime soon. I reserve having a double cappuccino for Sunday mornings, after a brisk walk to the Southern Village Weaver street market. While in Sienna we purchased a Moka coffee maker for about 14 euros. We buy our coffee (Kenya French Roast) from Southern Season, and we grind it ourselves. Very fine for the Moka. We recently purchased (World Market) two medium sized ceramic cups and saucers for our coffee--not mugs, and not over-sized cappuccino cups. I use Organic Valley half-and-half and raw sugar. And I typically have one cup a day. Maybe two. We are trying to recreate the Italian coffee experience, and it feels pretty damn close.

I find that only the first cup actually gives me a pleasing brain jolt. If I had good sense and better discipline, I'd always use that coffee rush to work on my book. But I often find myself reading blogs, novels, etc. while the coffee works its magic.

So the summertime Sunday morning ritual is to walk with husband and daughter (she rides in a jogging stroller), while my son sleeps in, for about 40 minutes to the cafe at Weaver Street in Southern Village. We go early enough (before 8:00) to beat the heat. Most mornings my breakfast consists of a healthy GoLean cereal with berries, but on Sundays I have that double cappuccino and a freshly-baked almond croissant. DH has a plain or chocolate croissant and dd has a blueberry muffin. This is our effort to mimic the European pleasure of walking to the local cafe. The walk is longer, sweatier, and uphill for much of the way, but the delight of having that pastry and coffee before returning home is inexpressible.

I confess that DH and I have been trying to determine if the bakery quality has changed at Weaver Street since they moved the ovens to Hillsborough. I am a little sad that I'll never again get rustic bread that's still warm, since it now has to ride in the truck for 30 minutes. But we're grateful to be spoiled with some of the best bread in the whole US of A. People who commit the lunacy of the Atkins diet have never tasted really good bread.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Mad Men Premiere Dinner

Last night my husband and I indulged in a mid-century meal to celebrate the premiere of my current fave show, Mad Men. Digging out my 1968 Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, I planned out the menu. Since vodka martinis (I don't do gin) were a must (with lots and lots of olives), I decided to begin the meal with some cocktail snacks. We had clam dip (made with bleu cheese and cream cheese) on triscuits, roasted almonds, some crisp veggies (radishes cut like roses!), and some really delicious deviled eggs. Why is it that the older I get, the more I love deviled eggs? I couldn't stand these things when I was young.

Dinner itself was a grilled ribeye for hubbie (I also don't do red meat), twice baked potatoes, and a classic caesar salad. I realize that there's some debate as to what constitutes classic, but I love anchovies, so they were a must. I also used a raw egg!! I know, shocking. But these eggs were from Celebrity Dairy, where the chickens roam free, so I felt pretty safe.

Tonight we're having crab cakes (crabby patties to the young), sweet potato fries, and steamed asparagus. I've worked hard on trying to get my crab cakes perfect. And now I'm not satisfied with restaurant crab cakes unless I'm on the Chesapeake bay. One big improvement is when I started using Panko for the breadcrumbs. My recipe is simple: lemon juice, Old bay seasoning, egg, mayo, some chopped green pepper and green onion, a dash of tabasco, pound of crab meat, and a bit of the Panko. Once they're made into patties, I cover them with some more of the Panko and then refrigerate them until it's time to fry them in some canola oil. They're light and super crabby.

Once I get the hang of blogging, I guess I'll need to post pictures of food I've prepared.

My other recent obsessions: trying to recreate dishes from our recent trip to Italy and trying to eat as locally as possible. So I'll probably post on those meals soon. Tomorrow night: the satisfaction of an omelet, salad, and really good bread from Weaver Street Market.